Bob Young, chief economist and deputy executive director of public policy for the American Farm Bureau Federation, speaks to an audience at the Iowa Farm Bureau economic summit about the farm bill process and some of the challenges facing lawmakers when they return from August recess. The current extension of the 2008 farm bill expires Sept. 30.
Bob Young, chief economist and deputy executive director of public policy for the American Farm Bureau Federation, speaks to an audience at the Iowa Farm Bureau economic summit about the farm bill process and some of the challenges facing lawmakers when they return from August recess. The current extension of the 2008 farm bill expires Sept. 30.
AMES, Iowa — Instead of taking the expressway, Congress has chosen to take the back roads on its journey to complete a new farm bill.

Despite starts and stops and detours, at least one person watching that journey is confident that the bill will reach its destination.

“I am optimistic that we are going to get this done and get it done this year,” said Bob Young.

For those expecting action would be taken before the Senate and the House headed to their August recess on Aug. 2 with plans to return on Sept. 9, Young extinguished that thought.

“Is there a reasonable chance that we’ll get this done before August recess? No way,” he said. “At this stage in the game (on July 22), we’ll be lucky to get to conference before we get to August recess, but there’s no way we’re going to get this bill done before we go on August recess.”

Young, chief economist and deputy executive director of public policy for the American Farm Bureau Federation, outlined the process for members of the Iowa Farm Bureau at the group’s second economic summit at Iowa State University in Ames.

When the final bill heads to the floor of the Senate and the House for a vote, could it look vastly different than either the current Senate or House version? It’s a possibility, Young said.

“Rep. (Pete) Sessions stood up on the House floor and said, ‘Look, understand the implications of us passing this legislation. If we pass this legislation the way we’ve written it, we have zero cuts to the nutrition program because we’re not touching it and, frankly, that’s exactly what the legislation is that passed and sent over to the Senate — zero cuts in the nutrition program,’” he said.

“That means when they start to negotiate the final bill, assuming the House doesn’t do something on nutrition in the meantime, that means the House negotiators are sitting at the table and they have zero cuts to nutrition programs.”

Young also painted a scenario in which the lack of any House changes to nutrition programs could provide a boost to Democratic senators who want to escape the heat of their own bill’s $4 billion in cuts to nutrition programs.

“If you’re on the Senate side and the House decides to get a little sticky, all you have to do as a senator is say, ‘The Senate recedes to the House — we’ll take the House position.’ So that’s where we are.”

Young said he believes the differences in the non-nutrition titles between the Senate-passed unified version of the farm bill and the House commodity version are so small as to be easily resolved.

“The differences between these two pieces of legislation on the commodity title are so small that if you really had to, I have absolutely no doubt that (House Agriculture Committee) Chairman (Frank) Lucas and (Senate Agriculture Committee) Chairman (Debbie) Stabenow could bring their staffs together and say, ‘Guys, it’s 10 a.m. and we’ve got to have a deal by 5 p.m.’ They could find a way to get a deal by 5 on the commodity title, and the rest of the bills are so close to each other that it wouldn’t take them that long to come to agreement on what ought to be in those provisions,” he said.

In fact, Young said he and his staff believed that the House Agriculture Committee-passed version, that went to the House floor for a full vote on June 20, would pass. Young was preparing to travel to Texas to speak to the Texas Farm Bureau.

“At that point in time, life was great. We were putting together press releases about what a great job Chairman Lucas had done on shepherding this bill through the House floor, and we were appreciating that we were going to get to conference and get this bill done. Now, by gosh, we got this done in the Senate and we got this done in the House and now we were going to move on to conference and things were going to happen. Well, as you know, things didn’t happen,” he said.

Young also outlined the role that House leadership, Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., had in the routes that both the June 20 and the July 11 votes took.

“I would tell you that if the House leadership had worked the first vote the way they worked the second vote, we wouldn’t be in this mess that we’re in today,” Young said. “Not 30 minutes after the June 20 vote is done, Majority Leader Cantor is down on the floor and he is basically haranguing the Democrats for not passing this legislation.

“Now, I’m sorry, you are the leadership. You are the guy who’s running the floor. If you can’t get the votes for a bill that your party wants to bring to the floor, don’t go and blame the other guys after you passed all of your amendments. This is a decision you guys made — let’s move on.”

Young noted that the nutrition lobby has provided a constant and firm support of its position.

“When you sit down and talk with folks on the nutrition front, that are in the nutrition program, they are just adamant that there can be no changes, no touches, no adjustments whatever to these programs,” he said.

Young said that lawmakers may have started to realize that the “Party of No” approach may not be working.

“It’s one thing for folks to be bomb-throwers. It’s another thing for folks to get to the stage where they have to govern, and I think we’ve got a few folks in the House who are not finding out it’s now time they have to govern, a very different position from where some of these folks have campaigned from and where they have run from and operated on,” he said.

He added that while lawmakers may be voting out of fear of groups on the far right and far left, such as the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute and Americans for Tax Reform on the right and the Environmental Working Group on the left, farm and agricultural groups need to remind lawmakers that they have expectations, too.

“I think it’s true that this has shown up as a report card measure for several of these organizations. As you have conversations with our own leadership, there’s a few of our leaders who are saying, ‘You know, we have report cards, too. Who are these people, the Heritage Foundation? They’re not local to any of our districts? Why is it that we’re worried about these guys?’ There is some of this concern about the far right and folks worried that they’re positioned for a primary so they don’t have somebody running to the right of them. But I think, certainly in Iowa, we have quite a few folks saying, ‘Wait a minute, we’re here. This is us. Let’s talk about what we need,’” he said.

Young said the bill will hinge on decisions about the nutrition titles when Congress returns.

“I would just say at this point in time when you talk about making a forecast, give me a nutrition forecast and I’ll give you a forecast on where the farm bill is going to go because that’s where it all is at this stage in the game,” he said.